The N-word

Two interesting pieces in recent days on the subject – one from ESPN’s Jason Whitlock. The other from the great essayist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, of the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times.

Whitlock regards the word as an emblem of black subjugation and believes that when African Americans themselves use the word, they are only expressing their internalized inferiority and slave mentality. Consequently, he vehemently disagrees with Mike Wilbon, Charles Barkley and the Clippers’ Matt Barnes (who was fined by the NBA for using the word on twitter), who say they will keep it in their vocabularies when they are talking to friends.


This is what I was referring to last week when I wrote that black American culture has been turned upside down and corrupted by mass incarceration, the destruction of the traditional family unit and commercial hip-hop music. The impact of these corrosive forces can be seen in the values and perspective of African-Americans across economic and class lines. We have a new normal. As it relates to the N-word, Barkley and Wilbon, like many African-Americans, have adapted to the new normal. The N-word is a cherished possession.

We have bought the false narrative promoted by rappers and the corporations that pay rappers to make black-denigration music that the N-word has been stripped of its power to denigrate. We foolishly believe that religiously using the slur given to us by enslavers who saw us as subhuman is a righteous act of defiance against The Man.

Whitlock goes on to say that while people have a right to say whatever they want amongst their friends, businesses also have a right to regulate conduct in their places of work. In this context, he called on commissioners Stern and Goodell to ban the word from NBA and NFL workplaces, respectively, including in lockerrooms and in front of spectators:

Banning the N-word in the workplace is not a threat to American freedom or a racist assault on black America. Remember eight years ago when people overreacted because Stern had the audacity to require his players to dress appropriately when coming to work? Taking off the white T’s, do-rags, oversized jewelry and putting on business-casual attire was somehow defined as a racist plot hatched by Stern.

It wasn’t. It was a wise business move. It was a continuation of Stern’s responsibility to make the NBA more appealing to its customer base and corporate sponsors. Stern acted in the best interest of his players, a bunch of kids who think Jay Z is smarter about basketball than the commissioner is.

The decision by Stern in 2005 to impose a dress code on NBA players came in the aftermath of the “Malice in the Palace,” the November 2004 brawl in Auburn Hills between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. That fight famously spilled into the stands after a fan dumped water on one of the fight’s participants, the Pacers’ Ron Artest (who was suspended for the rest of that just-begun season) . It also prompted yet another national outcry about out of control professional athletes and the dangers of letting the “inmates run the asylum.”

I mention this context because while I think a ban on the N-word on the court and the field would be justifiable, I think Whitlock is wrong to insist that Stern’s dress-code decision was not motivated by racial considerations. I recognize that “racial considerations” and ‘racial plot’ are not the same thing. But Whitlock is eliding the inescapably racial context in which these debates unfold and those bear directly on league policy, especially in the two American sports that are predominantly African American, basketball and football. Hockey has seen more than its fair share of brawls, including those that have involved fans. But fighting on and adjacent to the ice has never prompted the kinds of deeper cultural ruminations that happens when (now extremely rare) fighting takes place in the NBA. Readers can decide for themselves why that might be.

In a 2005 UCLA Entertainment Law Review article, Jeffrey Williams, a 26-year old attorney (who died suddenly in 2006), unpacked the racial dimensions of the NBA’s response to the Auburn Hills fight. As I noted in a summary of the article at the time, Commissioner Stern himself was fully mindful of the special challenges facing a league trying to sell mostly black stars to a mostly white audience. Stern told the Washington Post in 2005:

“I think it’s fair to say that the NBA was the first sport that was widely viewed as a black sport and…will always be viewed a certain way because of it. Our players are so visible that if they have Afros or cornrows or tattoos – white or black – our consumers pick it up. So, I think there are always some elements of race involved that affect judgments about the NBA.”

Whitlock has complained often that the corporations that promote rap music are doing a tremendous disservice by marketing misogyny and by normalizing the racist self-deprecation of rap music’s celebration of the n-word and “prison” culture. In this regard, it’s striking that Whitlock sees as unproblematic the NBA’s dress code enforcement as a reasonable and uncomplicated business decision. Why is it striking? Because, as Williams noted, the NBA has, in the past, sought to cash in on imagery that, as of 2005, it claimed to abhor.


“[t]hough its dimensions are complex, the cultural authenticity commercialized by the NBA and industry affiliates represents a racist device because those cultural dimensions are closely associated with race.” Williams continues: “the NBA and its sponsors did not create this problem – but they did regard it as a commercial opportunity. This facet of league business is not overt or intentional racism. Yet only the naïve would believe the cultural overtones of the NBA’s marketed image were unknown or only understood by league management. This device was in effect the knowing exploitation of the respective industry markets. Neither overt nor covert, this form of commercial racism is just as real…”

It’s true, I think, that the NBA has pivoted in its marketing in recent years. Allen Iverson is out – the much tamer LeBron and D-Wade are in (interestingly, when Sports Illustrated put those two plus Carmelo on their 2006 preview cover, SI’s Jack McCollum told Mike Francesa and Chris Russo that a lot of fans objected to the cover because ‘Melo appeared in cornrows.”

To be clear, none of this means Whitlock is wrong to argue that the dress code was a bad business decision. It certainly was not. But to argue that if something is a good business decision it can’t also be a racially-suffused policy is naive.

Of course, dress codes and use of the n-word are not necessarily in the same category.  But the discussion of how to police decorum in professional sports does raise, as I’ve already said, the inescapable messiness of context. It’s in this vein that Coates wrote yesterday to argue against blanket prohibitions of the N-word.

In Defense of a Loaded Word, Coates wrote:

Three weeks ago the Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, who is white, was reported to have addressed his fellow Dolphin as a “half-ni–er.” About a week later, after being ejected from a game, the Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes, who is black, tweeted that he was “done standing up for these ni–as” after being ejected for defending his teammate. This came after the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper, who is white, angrily called a black security guard a “ni–er” in July.

What followed was a fairly regular ritual debate over who gets to say “ni–er” and who does not. On his popular show “Pardon the Interruption,” Tony Kornheiser called on the commissioners of the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball to ban their players from publicly using the word. The ESPN host Skip Bayless went further, calling “ni–er” “the most despicable word in the English language — verbal evil” and wishing that it could “die the death it deserves.”

Coates noted that while Kornheiser and Bayless are white, many blacks also expressed similar views. He didn’t mention Whitlock, but did point out that Al Sharpton, among others, said that when blacks use the word they are signalling it’s OK for whites to do so as well. In other words, according to this line of thinking, there is no acceptable “double standard” for uttering the term.

But Coates turns the double-standard argument – the frequent white plaint about why blacks “get to” say the word when whites can’t on its head.

This is the politics of respectability — an attempt to raise black people to a superhuman standard. In this case it means exempting black people from a basic rule of communication — that words take on meaning from context and relationship. But as in all cases of respectability politics, what we are really saying to black people is, “Be less human.” This is not a fight over civil rights; it’s an attempt to raise a double standard. It is no different from charging “ladies” with being ornamental and prim while allowing for the great wisdom of boys being boys. To prevent enabling oppression, we demand that black people be twice as good. To prevent verifying stereotypes, we pledge to never eat a slice a watermelon in front of white people.

…A separate and unequal standard for black people is always wrong. And the desire to ban the word “ni–er” is not anti-racism, it is finishing school. When Matt Barnes used the word “ni–as” he was being inappropriate. When Richie Incognito and Riley Cooper used “ni–er,” they were being violent and offensive. That we have trouble distinguishing the two evidences our discomfort with the great chasm between black and white America. If you could choose one word to represent the centuries of bondage, the decades of terrorism, the long days of mass rape, the totality of white violence that birthed the black race in America, it would be “ni–er.”

I find these arguments compelling, though I am not sure they fully address the question of whether there would be a feasible way, on the court, for example, to express such a nuanced rule in enforceable form. If a white player uses the word, for example, would that merit a fine, whereas the same would not be the case for a black player? I mention this because while the larger cultural meaning are mainly what the debate is about, there are those calling for specific, applicable rules and penalties in specific contexts. Coates’ arguments don’t address those.

But for Coates, there is no neat resolution, no way to come to a universal standard that can properly reflect an unbridgeable chasm:

But though we were born in violence, we did not die there. That such a seemingly hateful word should return as a marker of nationhood and community confounds our very notions of power. “Ni–er” is different because it is attached to one of the most vibrant cultures in the Western world. And yet the culture is inextricably linked to the violence that birthed us. “Ni–er” is the border, the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear. It tells white people that, for all their guns and all their gold, there will always be places they can never go.

This discussion reminds me of Dan LeBatard’s rejoinder a few years ago to those who criticized him for suggesting that Steve Nash’s race might have played a role in his winning the NBA MVP:

And I’m just as tired of hearing white people bitch about the double standard here as white people are of hearing cries of racism. Yes, black people can say things white people can’t. But Jimmy The Greek and Al Campanis don’t make up for slavery, OK? They don’t make up for the fact that just about every person in a position of power in sports is white and hiring other white people. They don’t make up for the fact that 6 of 1 million college-football coaches are black because all the people in power and making the decisions are white and they tend to hire other white people because if you looked around the room at their parties and galas and weddings, all you would see is white people. This isn’t racism. Its human nature. We gravitate toward those with similar interests, experiences, etc. But black people are in an unequal position because of it. So, yes, there’s a double standard. Black people can say things that white people can’t. But I’m OK with that double standard given what has to be endured to arrive at it. Life ain’t fair sometimes. If life were fair, Dane Cook wouldn’t be getting more play than Frank Caliendo and Dave Chapelle.” (my bold)

LeBatard and Coates aren’t speaking to exactly the same issue, but they are both making an argument about context – that it can be frustrating, elusive and seem unfair but is hard to ignore.


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